by Roderick Conway Morris

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War, Love, Death and Freedom


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 4 September 1996

 

War and revolution of the violent and velvet variety are the themes of some of the most notable films in this year's Venice Film Festival.

Neil Jordan's eagerly anticipated "Michael Collins" is liable to put more noses out of joint in southern Ireland than in the north.

After the debacle of the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, which was intended as the signal for a countrywide revolution but was greeted by the mass of the population with apathy and even incredulity, Michael Collins was among the foot soldiers sent to prison.

When Collins emerged from jail, he and his Irish Volunteers launched a campaign of assassination of policemen and security operatives that led to an appalling escalation in violence and brutal, often indiscriminate, reprisals. When at last a political solution was sought, Collins and Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein, were dispatched to London to negotiate the Treaty for the Irish Free State, which offered Dominion status but did not include the loyalist-majority counties of Northern Ireland.

Though a narrow majority of the Irish Parliament voted in favor of the treaty, Eamon de Valera repudiated it and, in the ensuing Civil War, Collins was killed in a rebel ambush in 1922, opening the way for de Valera not only to triumph politically, but also to influence the writing of official Irish history.

"Michael Collins," which stars Liam Neeson, is visually grand, has a racy pace and is expertly cast (with Julia Roberts invited on board as a star attraction and acquitting herself well as Collins's sweetheart, Kitty). The film does not flinch from showing the conflicts and hatreds that erupted within the Republican ranks but, unfortunately, when portraying the British and loyalists, slides into caricature.

Neeson puts in a splendid performance as Collins, who is depicted as a bluff, swashbuckling, instinctively intelligent man of great charm and charisma, who, though never one to sidestep a brawl, derived no personal kick from the carnage he unleashed. De Valera, played with ghoulish aplomb by Alan Rickman, is presented as cold, prissy, devious, militarily incompetent, consumed by personal ambition, contemptuous of real democracy, the man who set Collins up as the fall guy, knowing full well that the British could never agree to hand over the entire island, and who was ultimately responsible for the murder of Collins, without whom de Valera would never have been able to achieve his aims.

Ken Loach's "Carla's Song" begins with the chance meeting of a good-hearted, free-spirited, quick-tempered Glasgow bus driver, George (Robert Carlyle), and a traumatized young Nicaraguan woman, Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), who has fled to Britain after being wounded when the Sandinista group of singers and dancers she is with is caught in a Contra attack.

Having fallen in love with Carla, George goes to Nicaragua to search for her former lover, who has suffered terrible mutilation at the hands of his captors. Excellently acted, gritty and containing stomach-churning details of atrocities committed, the film nonetheless remains a polemic, principally concerned with exposing CIA skullduggery, rather than a fully realized drama in which the characters take on an independent life of their own.

The dispiriting daily grind of living in a totalitarian society run by vindictive morons, and the unexpected conse-quences of its collapse, form the trajectory of the Czeck director Jan Sverak's "Kolya," presented out of competition.

Already a runaway success at home, this low-budget but highly professional film was written by and stars Zdenek Sverak, Jan's father, as Fantsek Louka, a 55-year-old lead cellist who has been ordered out of the Czech Philharmonic by the secret police for impertinence rather than dissidence.

Forced to do odd jobs and desperate to make ends meet, Louka is bribed into a marriage of convenience with a Russian woman, who promptly flees to the West, leaving him with her 5-year-old son, Kolya (impish Andrej Chalimon).

The entry of this unexpected burden into the life of Louka, whose studiously disengaged bachelor existence has until then been interrupted only by transient affairs with pretty young colleagues and pupils, provides the trigger for an immensely appealing comedy, which teeters on the edge of sentimentality but is dragged back by Louka's world-weary wit and a denouement that celebrates the country's Velvet Revolution without holding it out as a panacea for human foibles.

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SUCH lightness of touch is worlds away from Volker Schlondorff's ponderous "The Ogre," in which most of the action takes place in Germany during World War II. John Malkovich stars as Abel, a foundling who grows up into a disturbing weirdo only happy in the company of children and animals.

After a young girl accuses him of molesting her, he escapes from jail by joining the French Army on the eve of war. Abel is captured and, after working at Goering's hunting lodge, is sent to a special SS boarding school where his main task becomes to scour the countryside, abducting farmers' children to replenish the ranks.

As the Russians arrive and the whole monstrous Nazi edifice collapses, Abel supposedly achieves redemption by rescuing a Jewish child. Expensively shot, with a truly terrible script and a story that reaches new depths of implausibility at every turn, this film's exploitation of historical tragedy would be offensive if it were not so utterly silly.

Tom DiCillo's "Box of Moonlight," set in Tennessee, has an energetic, finger-picking-good soundtrack but is markedly less successful in every other respect. The tale of two characters (John Turturro and Sam Rockwell) whose company many would go to elaborate lengths to avoid, the film ends up being aimlessly inconsequential.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016